The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Not because life is for us or against us, not because we did something right or wrong, not because we are good or bad, just because the nature of being alive includes difficult experiences: pain, loss, grief, sadness, anxiety, fear (and many wonderful experiences too!). In these tumultuous times, we are experiencing intense emotions — our own suffering and worries about the suffering of others. Fortunately, as Pema Chodron says, “this moment is the perfect teacher.” This context is ground for training: training ourselves to wake up, training our hearts to open. With wakeful and alert minds, with open and tender hearts, we can continue our work in the world, we can engage what’s going on around us with clarity, energy and compassion. One way to cultivate a wakeful mind is to exercise the muscle of coming back to the present moment. This is a muscle that needs training, just like muscles in your body need to be worked in order to get stronger or fingers need to practice playing an instrument, in order to play it with more ease. Here is one short practice you can do to cultivate wakefulness. It’s called choiceless awareness.

Put a timer on for 10 minutes and your phone on silent so it doesn’t interrupt you.

Find a spot where you can sit comfortably – it could be in your house or somewhere outside. Sit up straight, but try not to stiffen — your chest is open, your feet are touching the ground, you can feel the space above your head, your hands are resting on your thighs. Imagine a string coming out of the top of your head, gently pulling you upwards towards the sky. Your face and body are relaxed, while you continue to sit upright.

Notice your breath: it goes in and out naturally. There is nothing you have to do to force it — breathing happens on its own.

Now allow yourself to become aware of your surroundings. Notice the sounds. What do you hear around you? What sounds are close to you? What sounds are far away? Listen again. Focus on the sounds that are nearby. Now focus on the ones that are in the distance. If you are outside, your eyes might notice the movement of birds, leaves on a tree or the people around you. Allow your awareness to follow the changes in movement, sound or sensation.

At some point, you will be carried away by your thoughts. Ah, thoughts! You can greet them as if they were dear, old friends. Let the thoughts come and go. The point is not to clear your mind. The point is to train your mind to come back to the present moment, which is a natural ability that you already possess. When you discover you are back in the present moment, notice your breathing and focus on the sounds again. What is in the foreground? What is in the background? In your line of vision, notice the tiny movements, the shifts, the changes.

Then your thoughts carry you away again… At some point, something brings you back: a pain in your back, the sound of a dog barking, an itch, a change in the light.

Continue this way — coming back to the present moment and placing your awareness on whatever grabs your attention, as many times as you can until your alarm goes off.
Your natural ability to come back to the present moment is a great gift that you possess: you don’t have to buy it, nor is it dependent on anyone else. When you come back, you are here: feet on the ground, breathing naturally. It’s actually ok and really important to relax and to experience the space around you. The intensity of suffering or fear and worrying about the suffering of others doesn’t need to be put away or aside. In the midst of those feelings, you can simply notice what it sounds like, feels like, looks like to be alive: right here, right now, for just a few minutes.


By: Liza Smith

Liza is part of the Shambala Buddhist Community. Her work can be found at and



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